Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has challenged the government in Parliament over the ongoing inquiries into paid lobbying by now-former MP Owen Paterson and his role in securing major government contracts for health company Randox. During the debate government ministers admitted under questioning from Mr Carmichael that crucial minutes from meetings between Paterson and Health Minister Lord Bethell were currently missing.
Speaking in the House Mr Carmichael asked:
“I am prepared to take at face value everything that she says about Randox, but it does then raise in my mind the question of what exact benefit the company had from engaging the services of Owen Paterson. Will the Minister commit to publish the minutes of the telephone conference call of which he was part?”
The minister, in responding, suggested that no minutes had been taken or that the minutes may have been lost. Mr Carmichael then said:
“When we hear the concession from the Minister at the Dispatch Box that no record was taken of the telephone conference call involving Lord Bethell and Owen Paterson, and when we hear the somewhat improbable history of the relationship between Lord Bethell and his various mobile phones, suspicious minds will ask why there is nothing much here to see.
“I wonder whether the search for these minutes has extended as far as the shredding room.”
He went on to note:
“Saying that documents and text messages and WhatsApp messages on Ministers’ phones cannot be found only lasts so long as a defence. A full inquiry is coming; the more dust is kicked up, the worse it will be for Government Ministers at the end of the day.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need to have the fullest possible disclosure. It does not just reflect badly on the Government; it reflects badly on all of us in public life.
“In her speech, the Minister reminded us of the situation in which we found ourselves in March 2020, when we did not really know what the future held. This House passed the Coronavirus Act 2020, which gives massive amounts of latitude to the Government. What I fear has not been properly understood is that, with those powers, we gave the Government a responsibility, but they seem to have seen it not so much as a responsibility as an opportunity for enrichment. I say to the Minister and to all her colleagues that that attitude is at the heart of the problem and is, essentially, an abuse of the powers that we gave them.”
Mr Carmichael went on to discuss the difference between paid lobbying and the normal work of MPs advocating for their constituents:
“Like every other Member in this House, I frequently sit down with businesses in my constituency and will help them, if possible, to get rid of penalties. That includes people charged for a late VAT return and farmers penalised in a draconian manner for making a minor and unintentional error in their claim for an agricultural support payment.
“Sometimes we are able to help them; sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders after we have tried and say, “I’m really sorry, I tried, but these are the rules.” Those constituents will only ever listen to me deliver that message again if they can be satisfied that the rules that so adversely affect them also apply to everybody else. The real damage that the Government seek to do in the way they have handled these matters is that they will never again be able to tell other people that they should not be held to the same standard.”